Mark Brownlow’s tips for email tool selection

I had the honor to talk to Mark Brownlow last week. He is one of the few independent journalists in the emailspace and a very respected one at that.  Via his website and writings he has been helping email marketers for over ten years now. Of course, I couldn’t resist to ask him about email tool selection.

Jordie: What tips would you give to a starting email marketer looking for an email vendor?

Mark: There are far better qualified folk than me to talk about vendor selection. So just a couple of tips from when I first went through the process.

We’re not very good as an industry at making things easy to understand for people new to email marketing. So if you’re going to do a decent job of evaluating vendors, then you need to learn the insider language.

The web is full of introductory articles and glossaries, but some book suggestions might help. Even though it’s a little old now, Jeanne Jennings’ Email Marketing Kit does a wonderful job of bringing newcomers up to speed on all key aspects of the topic. A more recent book for beginners is John Arnold’s E-Mail Marketing For Dummies.

Those with a touch more experience should try Simms Jenkins’ The Truth About Email Marketing and those more interested in the design side might consider Mathew Patterson’s Create Stunning HTML Email That Just Works!

Immersing yourself in the topic will also help you better understand the kind of tools, resources and handholding you’ll need now and further down the road as your email efforts expand.

On that point, be very honest and realistic about what you eventually want to do with your emails. You can end up paying for features or tools that you’d “like to use sometime in the future” but never get around to implementing or exploiting because of the realities of business and working life. This issue has dogged me for twelve years!

Jordie: You are being too modest, but those are some great resources for starting and experienced marketers. Let me just add a link to your website too, because that is also a great resource: Email Marketing Reports. Once you have read through all that, anyone can call himself a mini-expert. Back to the subject of email tool selection, what do you say if someone has already decided what kind of email tools they want and need?

Mark:I’ve switched ESPs five times and it was always hard to find any meaningful *independent* information on vendors or services. So it’s been heartening to see the appearance of various sites which actively help with the vendor selection process (including this one).

I’m thinking of places like Email Geeks and the Email Guide. Not to mention specialist forums where email marketers can solicit recommendations and opinions on vendors from fellow practitioners, like the Email Marketers Club or the Only Email discussion list at OnlyInfluencers.com

These are a lot better sources of information than the content-lite comparison sites you find offering simple ESP rankings. Those rankings often depend more on how much a vendor will pay for the referral than the quality of their service.

Jordie: I totally agree on those lite comparison sites, they don’t do the Emailtools (especially the ones with more added value and no affiliate program) any justice.  Asking fellow emailmarketers is good, but a word of caution if you are planning to ask just anywhere (e.g. preferably not in LinkedIn groups). Now if we look at emailmarketing as a whole, do you see a difference between where email marketing is headed and where it should be heading?

Mark: One boon for email marketing was always relative constancy in how people used email. For many years, there’s wasn’t much innovation in terms of what webmail services and desktop clients offered. And people’s email habits stayed more or less the same.

This has changed now and I’m not convinced email marketers have adjusted. In recent times, we’ve seen:

1. One-to-one, personal communications shift increasingly to social networks.
2. Big interface changes at major webmail services. These are morphing into intelligent, social inboxes, which means lots of integration of social, chat and other channels with email. Then there are the new email management and display features, like Gmail’s Priority Inboxes and Hotmail’s Active Views.
3. Huge growth in sales of email-friendly mobile devices, particularly smartphones.

In particular, more and more people are going to open and interact with emails on the go, through a range of mobile devices. This doesn’t get talked about much. And when it does, it’s usually all about the implications for email design.

Design is a big issue with mobile, but hardly anyone addresses how these fundamental shifts in usage patterns affect email marketing opportunities, tactics and strategies.

I’m convinced email marketers will need to adopt more of a “mobile mindset,” and I hope the right advice and understanding will come as our experience grows.

Jordie: Emailmarketers might be becoming email, mobile, webmail and social marketers too now. I always knew that there was more to explore. Then for the big tip, do you have any guidance for email marketers trying to convince their bosses for more budget (when selecting an ESP)?

Mark: Obviously the stock answer is to ensure you can communicate clearly the benefits of upgrading the email marketing tools at your disposal. But where that often goes wrong is in the choice of “benefits” to talk about.

Those of us working day-to-day in email marketing often focus on technical metrics like delivery rates, opens, and clicks…the ones that pop out quickly from campaign reports. Those taking a more holistic view of marketing alternatives (i.e. the boss) likely look at the impacts of email on more meaningful business metrics (like profits).

I see a lot of email marketing case studies that talk about how some new tool, feature or tactics lifted opens by 50% or improved revenues by 25%. Which is fine, but I’m always left asking how much difference that open rate jump made to actual conversions. And if revenues jumped, how much did it cost to produce those extra sales? I’m guessing the boss thinks the same way.

Equally, there are numbers out there you can use to build a case for investing in new technology, even if most do focus on opens and clicks. Sites like the Email Stat Center help here or simply take the time for a quick Google search: you’ll be surprised at what turns up. For example, a lot of people are reluctant to invest in testing as they’re unsure of the potential benefits. An hour or two of research turns up 17 examples of huge improvements resulting from (often simple) tests.

Jordie: So think like the boss and build the case using actual stats that are available; sounds like a plan. Although I think more and more of the experienced eMarketers are already shifting their focus from clicks to cash (or conversions if you want). Back to you, do you ever get any questions about ESPs? Which and what do you answer?

Mark: I do, but since my hands-on experience is limited to just the six ESPs I’ve actually used (three of which no longer exist), my answer is nearly always the same: “Sorry, but I’m just a lowly writer… try these information sources and consultants: …”.

I tend to get a lot more questions *FROM* ESPs (or their PR folk) than *ABOUT* ESPs. And a lot of depressing solicitations from people selling email lists.

But nothing ever comes close to the bizarre questions I used to get when I owned a website about biomedical publishing. Questions like, “Would you act as my agent in the sale of my testicles?” (For the record, I turned down that opportunity.)

Jordie: Thanks for the great talk, Mark; we hope to hear a lot more from you in the future!

About Jordie van Rijn


Jordie van Rijn is an independent email marketing consultant and Analyst. He is the Founder of Email Vendor Selection and specializes in smart email marketing, optimisation and RFP / vendor selection. Named on of "50 Online Marketing Influencers to Watch in 2016 " by Entrepreneur magazine.